NETFUTURE Technology and Human Responsibility
#109 A Publication of The Nature Institute August 3, 2000
L. Talbott (firstname.lastname@example.org)
NetFuture is a reader-supported
QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
Of Vision Quests, Gender, and Boredom
In her recently released Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp through the
Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech, Paulina Borsook takes up, among
other things, the John Perry Barlow / George Gilder view of "cyberspace and
hightechlandia" as the place "where the buffalo roam and dogs run
Never mind that many people working in high tech are most likely
grunt programmers doing stuff like maintaining inventory-tracking modules for
construction-management accounting software, or working at ghastly huge
man-in-the-gray-easy-care-twills places such as Ross Perot's own data processing
feudal kingdom, Perot Systems, or at former defense- aerospace contractors such
as Lockheed-Martin. Manning their computers like Kiowa braves on vision quests,
most high tech droids ain't. But how much more rewarding if, Walter Mitty-like,
to imagine such consonance between who they are day to day and what Wired
told them they were in their pilgrim souls!
In an idle moment I tried to jot
down some of the most basic reasons I could come up with for the public's
infatuation with digital technologies despite the kind of daily reality Borsook
points to. There's nothing original about my list (and you will doubtless want
to add to it). But it's useful to take a moment every so often and glance over
the large picture. So here's what I have so far:
** Mystery: people don't
understand what's inside the box.
** Eliza effect: the technology seems
** Reverse-Eliza effect: we often find ourselves struggling
helplessly with these machines, so obviously we're dumber than they are.
illusion of precise control (and who doesn't want to be in control?). Closely
related to this: the sense of power and capability associated with carrying all
these sleek, miniaturized gadgets around.
** Fashion: with every newspaper and
magazine now having a consumer-goods "news" section promoting digital
gadgets, the fashion quotient of this stuff has become irresistible.
** Sense of
progress and destiny in the inevitable march from one generation of technology
to the next, more sophisticated generation. How can these devices keep getting
better if there isn't a fundamental evolutionary imperative at work?
Distraction and escape.
** Computers are "solutions" -- the favorite
word of high-tech ad copywriters. Computers do provide solutions to problems in
an extremely narrow sense, and it is much easier to glorify the narrow
accomplishments than to realize how the very narrowness tends to subvert the
larger picture. (See "The Trouble with Ubiquitous Technology Pushers"
in NF #100, 101.)
Image Ascendent, or Descendent?
Am I the only one whose eyes glaze over at this kind of rhetoric?
-- The real world of digital reality has always been post-alphabetic.
Probably because the letters of the alphabet were too slow to keep up with the
light-time and light-speed of electronics, the alphabet long ago shuddered at
the speed of light, burned up and crashed to earth. Writing can't keep up to the
speed of electronic society. The result has been the end of the Gutenberg Galaxy
and the beginning of the Image Millennium. Images moving at the speed of light.
Images moving faster than the time it takes to record their passing. Iconic
images. Special-Effect Images. Images of life past, present and future as
culture is fast-forwarded into the electronic nervous system. Images that
circulate so quickly and shine with such intensity that they begin to alter the
ratio of the human sensorium. (Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, CTHEORY,
vol. 23, no. 1-2)
The best I can figure is that the authors wanted to submit their own
illustration of an alphabet that has crashed and burned.
But I do seriously wonder how long we are going to keep hearing this strange
mix of sense and nonsense about images. Did we take in fewer visual stimuli
before now? From morning till night we've always been confronted with a visual
world -- one that didn't need to travel through digital channels at "light
speed" to reach us because it was already here, minute by minute,
hour by hour, incessantly as long as our eyes were open. If we didn't consider
it particularly noteworthy, it was because it held together in a natural way, so
that our attention was focused on what our surroundings meant for our
Yes, something is changing, but it's not that we are increasingly exposed to
images. What's changing is the kind of images we are exposed to. They are ever
more arbitrary, incoherent, removed from the meaningful contexts of our lives,
manufactured by a machinery of abstraction, scientifically calculated to subvert
conscious intention, and designed to serve the narrowest commercial interests.
What they mean for us in any serious sense is often not much at all.
If all this has an impact on the role of print in our culture, again
it's not because we have so much imagery to cope with. The problem is with the
features of imagery I've just cited -- and, in particular, the arbitrariness,
incoherence, and subversion of conscious intention. It's hard to attend deeply
to a page (or screen) of print if you have been reduced to a bundle of reflex
reactions produced by meaningless distractions. But the alphabet is not the only
thing that crashes and burns in the presence of this reduction; so does
(Thanks to Ron Purser for forwarding the CTHEORY article.) SLT